It's damnably hard to write in the voice of a character far removed from your own experience, as anyone who has tried to read a certain recent Tom Wolfe novel can attest. In Common Ground, Stephen Granade set himself the task to do that not once but three times; it is a story told from the point of view of three characters in a slightly dysfunctional (but aren't they all?) family -- a teenage girl (Jeanie), her mother (Deb), and her stepfather (Frank). For an adult man like Mr. Granade, Jeanie is of course the biggest stretch, and perhaps unsurprisingly the end result doesn't quite work, having (like Mr. Wolfe's book) the feel of a writer trying bit too hard. Anachronisms such as the Mötley Crüe posters on her wall -- assuming this game takes place in the (as of its writing) present, it would be a very idiosyncratic teenager who obsessed over the Crüe as opposed to, say, Kurt Cobain or Eminem, and Jeanie seems more like a follower than an individualist -- don't really help matters. The writing from Deb and Frank's points of view, meanwhile, does not come across as quite so "off," but also lacks much real personality. Their voices are almost interchangeable, their personalities too bland. There are, for instance, hints in a couple of places that Frank may be sexually attracted to Jeanie, but whether due to timidity or something else Mr. Granade never fully reveals this aspect of Frank. Either put it in there or take it out, but don't go halfway.
The sames series of episodes is played out from each of the character's viewpoint. There are some problems here as well. I am frankly puzzled by Duncan Steven's comment in his Baf's Guide review that the game does a good job of tracking and remembering what you've done as previous characters and replaying those actions back later in the game. This wasn't my experience at all. I found myself having conversations as Frank (the second viewpoint character) and Deb (the third) that I never initiated or saw as Jeanie (the first). I can think of two possible reasons (excuses?) for this: 1) these scenes do not all really take place on the same day, thus serving to illustrate the humdrum nature of life in this household; or 2) we are actually seeing the recollections of each character, and these recollections naturally tend to put the viewpoint character in the best light and reflect her views of the others. I can't find any actual textual evidence for either possibility, though. This mimesis-destroying lack of internal consistency even crops up in the last scene, which is played only from the point of view of Jeanie. Jeanie here is suddenly carrying items in her inventory that she didn't have earlier in the game. Nor did she have any opportunity I could see to acquire them.
Perhaps the biggest mimesis killer is more subtle, though, and something I have to enclose in spoiler brackets. (Spoiler - click to show)During the first scene of the game, you are given every impression that Jeanie is merely going out for the evening with her friend, when she is actually planning to run away from home. Now, it's perfectly acceptable for the game to not reveal to you exactly what is really going on here, but it's not acceptable to betray absolutely no hint that this night is a not a normal one. Jeanie should be keyed-up, afraid, full of nervous excitement at what she is about to do. She is none of these things. Even when she steals money from Frank to fund her trip, she does it in such a blase way that I assumed she was just an habitual thief. The end result is to destroy the game's narrative consistency for the sake of playing a cheap joke on the player. It worked for 9:05, a game where the cheap joke was the point. It doesn't work for this allegedly serious character study.
In a sense, Common Ground is an advertisement for how far we've come in IF over the last decade. In spite of all my complaints, it's not a disaster. It's not a bad little game at all really, and worth the 30 to 45 minutes it might take you to play it. But when compared to more recent efforts, including Mr. Granade's own simulational tour de force Child's Play, it lack of technical sophistication and internal consistency shows through painfully.
Duffy, the protagonist of Necrotic Drift, is a loser of epic proportions. He's 28 years old and working in an RPG and card game shop for about $5.50 an hour while living with three roommates in a roach motel of an apartment. His biggest accomplishment in life so far has been winning an award at a Dungeons and Dragons convention five years ago. Stuck in perpetual adolescence as he is, his life is going absolutely nowhere. He has just three positives to look to: he's NOT living with his mom; two of his three roommates actually manage to make him look good by comparison; and he has a girlfriend, Audrey, who is by any objective standard far too good for him. Positive #3 may not stand for very much longer, though, because Audrey is just about to finally run out of patience with him.
After some character-building, Necrotic Drift kicks in for real when Duffy, Audrey, and a few others are trapped inside the mall one evening by an array of undead pulled straight from the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. Duffy, who knows the D&D rules by heart, at last can apply all this previously useless knowledge to saving his friends, and perhaps begin to repair his pathetic existence in the process.
Necrotic Drift is a Robb Sherwin game. That means plenty of gross-out frat-boy humor, a bewildering blizzard of gaming, sports, and pop culture references, and a general wallowing in American suburban mall culture. Luckily, that also means plenty of genuine wit, some surprising character insights, and some real soul underneath all the gags. Certainly some of the jokes are going to resonate more with some than with others. If you grew up nerd in the 1980's, you'll likely find a lot of this -- such as the just-mentioned fact that all of undead in the mall are just D&D Monster Manual entries brought to life, strengths and weaknesses intact -- funnier than others might. Of course, and for better or for worse, a pretty good chunk of us playing IF today are indeed aging 1980s nerds.
Couched within all of the gags and puzzles is the real heart of the game, which is Duffy's relationship with Audrey and his need to grow the hell up. I wouldn't say it's amazing storytelling -- some of Mr. Sherwin's attempts at earnestness, particularly in dialog, are downright clunky, and there's a curiously unresolved feeling to the whole thing in the end -- but the game manages to be touching in spite of it all.
Did I mention this was a Robb Sherwin game? Well, that always means a nice collection of bugs and other technical flaws. Certainly they're not as bad here as in some of his other efforts, but they're noticeable enough nonetheless. The menu-based conversation system broke on me toward the end of the game, offering totally inappropriate remarks applying to stuff I'd done ages ago. There's also piles of unimplemented scenery, and not enough attention has been paid to the parser, leading to occasional frustrations. Many perfectly reasonable actions were left completely unprovided-for. (Spoiler - click to show)When I was looking for a virgin to drink the holy water for the ritual at the end of the game, I wanted to call on Trett, my fellow employee at the game store. I would have bet money that guy had never had sex. But then in the epilogue we learn that the plump little fellow not only had sex but filmed it (ewww...), so what do I know?
Still, and like much of Mr. Sherwin's work, Necrotic Drift is somehow endearingly more than the sum of its parts. Oh, and the graphics and music are pretty cool too, as is the Magnetic Scrolls homage of the game's on-screen presentation and accompanying manual. (There's that 1980s nerd culture again...)
It strikes me that Emily Short came to IF implementation by the wrong way round entirely. Infocom began by meticulously implementing static environments, and only gradually began to include dynamic NPCs in their games, albeit never entirely successfully, as the disastor that was their one totally NPC-centric game, Shogun, will demonstrate. Ms. Short, meanwhile, dived in at the deep end with Galatea, and only as her career progressed gradually began to pay as much attention to her environments and her gameplay as she did to her characters.
Pytho's Mask is one of her earlier efforts, and so is very much conversation-focused, often at the expense of its world-model. A few simple puzzles aside, its scenery is obviously not Ms. Short's first priority -- in fact, it's downright underimplemented, something we will never see in one of her recent games. At the same time, though, it outshines most of her early games by having a fairly compelling plot on which to hang all the meticulously implemented conversation. While, say, Galatea or Best of Three can often feel like dialog in search of a narrative -- like amorphous talking heads suspended in a sort of gray soup chattering about nothing that really matters in the end -- Pytho's Mask has a narrative thrust that serves it well, and that makes it perhaps my favorite of her early games.
The game has the flavor of a romantic fantasy of the sort generally targeted toward teenaged girls and sold in the Young Adult area of the bookstore. There are plots and machinations aplenty; the protagonist is a young woman not only capable but also beautiful; and her potential love interests are either charming rogues or emotionally troubled Good Guys who of course also have the looks of a model. There is sexual tension aplenty, but the prospect of actual sex is only hinted at. It's a genre exercise, certainly, but an extremely well done one, filled with Ms. Short's usual gossamer prose and memorable imagery. (And I'm certainly not opposed to genre exercises in IF; it seems to me that given the current limitations of the form a well-done genre exercise is about the most we can reasonably hope for, and striving for more often leads to the worst kinds of tedious pretension. But I digress...)
You, the aforementioned beautiful and capable young woman, are actually a member of a secret order assigned to protect the King from some people who hope to harm him at a special party that takes place just once every hundred years in honor of the arrival of a certain comet in the sky. You will spend the vast majority of your time wandering about the party, observing and conversing with the attendees and trying to sort out who the bad guys are. While things can veer dangerously close to Amorphous Talking Head Territory at times, the plot machinery is generally tight enough and the conversations generally brief enough to make you feel like you are participating in a genuine narrative rather than an experiment in IF conversation systems.
But speaking of conversation systems, Ms. Short has of course tried out many of them over the course of her career. This time out we have a hybrid of an ASK/TELL and a menu-based system. Basically, you the player get to select what topic you would like to discuss. Upon doing so, you are are presented with a menu of from one to four specific phrases to choose from -- or, more disconcertingly, you are sometimes presented with a completely blank menu. But I don't think that's really supposed to happen. It's just one of this one's fair number of notable implementation flaws.
Conversations are quite dynamic, varying with the state of the game and your knowledge of the storyworld -- although things don't always work quite right here either. During my conversations I was greeted with quite a lot of non-sequiters, some jarring and inappropriate shifts in tone and mood, and even the occasional opportunity to speak knowingly about things my character as of yet knew nothing about. And sometimes the whole thing can be downright infuriating. You are instructed at the beginning of the game to seek out the King's physician and speak to him about the King. Typing "TOPIC KING" when conversing with him, however, just leads to a conversation menu that is all about... the Prince! And trying to navigate through the conversation system to explain what needs to be done to avert disastor can be almost as difficult as figuring out what needs to be done in the first place, as your PC stubbornly refuses to say what she urgently needs to say to prevent the King from meeting an unhappy fate indeed. The system is, in short (ha!), a good idea that works pretty well in the abstract, but falls down quite a lot in this particular implementation.
Still, what Ms. Short was attempting to do here is damnably difficult even today, and this game lacked the benefit of many years of experimentation and discussion, having been made just at the time when post-commercial era IF (driven largely by Ms. Short's own interests and experiments) was first beginning to seriously grapple with issues of dynamic NPCs and conversation. For those reasons, and because there is so much here -- the prose and the atmosphere it conveys especially -- that works so well, I'm willing to cut this game quite a lot of slack in this area. You should be prepared for a bit of frustration and an occasional lack of polish that you might find surprising in an Emily Short game if you tackle this one. Still, its strengths far outweigh its faults. I actually prefer this one to some of her more well-known works. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a giddy and innocent teenage romance.
(I re-played this recently using the Z-Code version that was still on my harddrive. If any of my complaints would have been alleviated by playing with the Glulx re-release that I just saw is available, my apologies.)
Emily Short's longest and perhaps most ambitious game, City of Secrets wowed me completely for the first hour or two I spent with it. The plot has you, a rather naive tourist, arriving in a large city for the first time. Your sightseeing there is quickly complicated by a mess of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies that you discover. You must sort out what is really going on, figure out who are the real good and bad guys, and finally choose a side to support. While doing all this, you also get the opportunity to explore the City and learn something about its culture and history.
Indeed, it's the City that is the real main character of the game. It's part of a fantasy world of Ms. Short's creation in which magic and high technology co-exist, and are (predictably enough) frequently at odds with one another. The most obviously unique feature of the City is that there is no such thing as night -- it's daylight all the time, apparently due to some sort of human tampering. (This memorable little wrinkle of course has the added benefit for Ms. Short of saving her from having to code a realistic day-night cycle.) Short doesn't just depend on this one gimmick to define her setting, though. Her city and her whole world are worked out in impressive, subtle detail that includes not only the present but the last several thousand years of history as well. It's some of the best, most complete world-building I've ever seen in IF, and the greatest strength by far of the game.
Plot-wise, things start off almost equally strong. The early stages of the game perfectly capture the "stranger in a strange land" feel of a tourist in an unfamiliar city. When inexplicable things start to happen at the margins of your existence, the effect is suitably creepy, and then when you are taken before the head of one of the City's factions and enlisted rather forcefully into his cause, things get downright compelling. The writing is excellent, Ms. Short by this stage of her career having shed the slightly cloying preciousness that dogged her earliest work.
During the middle game, though, the plot machinery begins to break down. There's far too much wandering over a rather expansive map, far too much talking to a huge cast of characters about essentially the same topics again and again, and not really that much to actually DO. In fact, when Ms. Short wrote recently on her blog about the challenges of maintaining dramatic pace in games with lots of conversation, I thought immediately of this game as an example of said challenges. One problem is that the sheer number of NPC's here preclude anyone from really taking center-stage. There are lots of personalities, tons of conversations, but only the most superficial of relationships to be formed. This makes it hard to really care about the plot once the novelty wears off, and eventually even the hugely rich and imaginative scenery and back-story start to become mind-numbing without a compelling foreground story to enjoy there. I found myself on several occasions reduced to wandering around from place to place trying to shake something loose and drive the plot forward -- not exactly a compelling narrative experience.
I get the impression that Ms. Short may have simply bit off more than she could chew with this one. I sense a bit of authorial exhaustion in the latter stages. Regardless, its failures shouldn't detract too much from its strengths -- it's a near masterpiece of world-building. Every IF tourist should spend a bit of time wandering around inside it.
Most discussion of this work begins and ends with its central gimmick: that it plays out over a single turn, in which you are allowed to choose just one action that will determine how this little vignette concludes. For me, though, that's not the most important thing.
If Aisle was just an exercise in trying random actions to see what results, it might be fun and intriguing, but hardly heartbreaking. And make no mistake: for me, Aisle is heartbreaking, oozing the same sort of neon-drenched romantic loneliness as a Wong Kar Wai film. You'll find some of the finest writing in IF here:
The trolley is a small cage of steel with bent rubber wheels. Full of your shopping: meals for one, drinks for one (well, drinks for several, but hey, who's counting?).
Gnocchi for one wouldn't really work. You settle for spaghetti and continue on to the next aisle.
As you play again and again, the backstory -- or rather, several possible backstories, but each drenched in the same melancholic longing -- gradually reveal themselves. One or two endings even hold out the promise of an end to the PC's isolation...
Truly, a great piece of work.
Much as I like to prattle on about IF's literary potential, there's nothing quite like the satisfaction of solving a well-designed puzzler, and it's a thrill that's a lot rarer that one might expect. All too many games get the delicate balance wrong, which is why a game like Final Selection is such a special thrill.
You are about to be offered your dream job as the Director of the Museum and Institute for Puzzles and Problem Solving -- if you can pass one final test by solving an elaborate set-piece puzzle designed just for you by the outgoing Director. In other words, Mr. Gordon grabs the nearest narrative excuse to give you a reason to solve a blatantly artifical, multi-layered puzzle that unfolds within a single room.
At first it all seems rather overwhelming, as the room contains literally dozens of objects -- both the usual collection of oddities to manipulate and cryptic written clues that make you think this is going to turn into an impossible game of riddles. Stick with it, though, and everything finally falls into place as the puzzle's logic at last unfolds before you. When it does, the sense of satisfaction is immense.
Final Selection was originally entered in a one-room game competition, but I'd say Mr. Gordon cheated a bit. While you are indeed locked in a single office, and while the status line never changes, the room is actually mapped into various areas that the PC automatically moves between fairly seamlessly -- and thank God for that, as the sheer amount of stuff in the office would be completely overwhelming if just lumped into one place.
There are, however, a few glitches that can distract from the superb overall design. The PC will only carry a few objects at a time, automatically putting something down in the nearest handy place when you try to exceed that. While this is nice from the standpoint of realism, it can quickly get rather annoying, as you will soon end up with objects strewn all over the room, making it hard to get a good picture of just what is available for use at any one time. The excellent automatic note-taking system helps with this, but doesn't quite overcome it.
Perhaps inevitably in a game that has so much similar stuff packed into such a small area, there are also occasional disambiguation problems.
But overall Final Selection is a great little puzzler, challenging but never unfair. I solved it all by myself, and enjoyed it more than any puzzlefest I've played in quite a while.
This game seems to be quite well-regarded by many, popping up in conversation fairly frequently despite having been released way back in 1998 by an author who has not to my knowledge done any IF work before or since. I wish I could say it impressed me as well, but it left me rather cold, both when I first played it back in the day and now when I return to it.
It certainly does have its strengths. The premise is that you are at the end of a much longer game, faced with solving the last few puzzles to escape a (if not The) great underground empire. This "ending of an (imaginary) longer game" riff is an idea that has been used several times since, to the point that it's become a bit cliched, but I can't hold that against this game. The writing is both technically proficient and generally clever, if unoriginal, being a rather slavish imitation of the "high Infocom" style. Technically, the game is also worthy of Infocom, being polished and bug-free.
But then we get to the puzzles. They're difficult. Very, very difficult, at least for me, and difficult in all the wrong ways. I don't see myself ever solving this without just trying random actions for the hell of it -- not really my kind of fun even then and certainly not now. When I give up on a game and go to the hints, I am guaranteed to react in one of two ways: either to be angry at myself for failing to think about THAT, or to be angry at the game for not playing fair. Suffice to say my reaction here was always the latter. Its worst sin is a failure to properly describe to me essential properties of objects that I need to be aware of to solve its puzzles: one object is sharp enough to be used for cutting, but I am never informed of this; a couple of others' sizes are of critical importance, but said sizes are never described; etc. It's a pity, as the central thing you are trying to achieve, and from which the game takes its name, IS clever and DOES give you a nice Ah-ha! moment when you figure it out. Unfortunately, solving the meta-puzzle just opens the door to lots of fiddly, under-clued frustration in trying to enact that solution.
I'm probably the wrong audience for this game in the end, which is why I'm not going to blast it too badly in scoring it. I'm just tired of puzzles that are an exercise in patience and frustration, and Infocom homages are not really what I'm looking for in my IF these days. If you do carry a hankering for the old-school days of Zork, though, and want to really be challenged, this may be right up your alley.
Let's deal with the obvious first: No Time to Squeal monkeys around with the standard IF system commands in an absolutely unforgivable way. Early in the game, you will appear to have lost, and will get the standard Restart/Restore/Quit prompt. Typing "restart" here will actually carry you on to the next section of the game. Should an unaware player choose to restore to try to find a better way, he's just out of luck. Ouch. The game then compounds the sin by repeating this trick several more times, long after it has ceased to be the slightest bit clever.
As for the rest: the game opens with an immediately engaging (if long) exposition explaining the (first) PC's life as a professional sports agent and describing one of his problem-child athletes. It then proceeds to do nothing with any of this, instead becoming a different sort of realistic drama focusing on "complications" with his wife's pregnancy. About halfway through, that also gets tossed in favor of the dreaded Surreal Profoundly Symbolic Fantasy World full of characters from Alice in Wonderland's nightmares. This is problematic in that these plots are arranged in descending order of interest. Safe to say this one ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
There's a saying in creative writing that every time you introduce a significant character, object, or symbol, the reader puts that in his metaphorical backpack. By the end of the story, he should have emptied his backpack out again, having disposed of everything in its proper place. (Or alternately, see Chekhov's famous comments about the gun over the mantelpiece in Act 1.) By the end of this game, the player is positively groaning under the weight of unused characters and objects and dangling plot threads. Nothing ever comes together into a whole. Even the gameplay is not consistent, going from a railroaded puzzleless piece to a poorly designed (if equally railroaded) puzzlefest without warning halfway through. I started playing from the walkthrough on this section as soon as I ran into the first guess the verb puzzle.
Mr. Sherwin is plainly trying to write in a different mode than usual here, for which he deserves credit. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work for him, just coming off as awkward and constrained -- the latter in particular not being a word I've ever associated with his work before. There are flashes of the old Robb, such as when the nurse's ex-boyfriend begins quoting a cheesy old Led Zeppelin lyric to her -- "ooooo"'s included -- as love poetry, but not enough. And then the writing is riddled with technical flaws -- missing words, misplaced modifiers, and words that just don't mean what Mr. Sherwin seems to think they do. It reads like a first draft.
To characterize the game in one word: sloppy. You may want to play the first half, but feel free to quit when the Surreal Fantasy kicks in. At that point, you've seen everything worth seeing.